The Omicron variant is believed to be a less severe strain than Delta, but experts warn that the new strain still poses an immediate threat to Australia’s healthcare system.
In South Africa – where Omicron was first detected and cases are now trending downwards – the country’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases found that people who tested positive for the new variant in October and November were 80 per cent less likely to be hospitalised compared to Delta patients.
With Omicron patients skewing younger compared to earlier strains, and the new strain reinfecting people who have some level of immunity from previous infections, these findings are somewhat expected.
Nevertheless, a separate group of researchers form the UK’s Imperial College London found that Omicron was less likely to lead to severe illness compared to Delta, even after accounting for things like age, sex, underlying health conditions, vaccination status and prior infection.
Although genomic testing in Australia has been slow, chief medical officer Paul Kelly said on Wednesday that the majority of new COVID cases in Australia are likely to be the Omicron variant.
On Thursday afternoon, NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said roughly 80 per cent of COVID cases in the state are of the Omicron strain, which is driving the recent surge.
Hospitalisations – and ICU stays in particular – have only increased marginally in comparison to case numbers.
“Pulling together multiple pieces of evidence from overseas countries such as South Africa and the UK, and using some of our own emerging data, it indicates that infection with Omicron is likely to be milder than infection with Delta, with the risk of hospitalisation being around 60 per cent to 80 per cent less than for Delta,” Dr Chant told reporters.
But as the state grapples with an unprecedented surge in cases over the holiday period, the sheer number of people winding up in hospital may well continue to climb, even if they’re a relatively small percentage of all COVID cases.
“It’s very much possible to have a more severe epidemic with a less severe variant,” Associate Professor James Trauer, head of Monash University’s Epidemiological Modelling Unit, told The New Daily.
“Because when we say less severe, it’s less severe at the individual level, but it could well mean that there’s so many more cases that we see very high pressure on our healthcare system.”
This concern was also stressed by the British researchers.
Although a less severe strain could be good news in the long term, in the short term the focus is on transmission.
Bringing back restrictions
Associate Professor Trauer said that while everyone is keen to move away from lockdowns, now is not the time to abandon restrictions altogether.
He called for a co-ordinated national approach.
“There’s so much political capital invested in making the decisions we’ve been making at the moment, there’s been so much negotiation and time put in, but then the virus just changes overnight, and those decisions need to change at the rate that the virus changes,” he said.
“Our political system isn’t set up to deal with that.”
Professor Jaya Dantas, a senior international health researcher from Curtin University, told TND that Australia will have to go back to some of the settings from earlier on in the pandemic.
“We’re not talking about lockdowns, we’re talking about public health measures,” she said.
To that end, NSW and Victoria reinstated mask mandates and other restrictions on Thursday afternoon after weeks of talk about opening up and living with Delta.
NSW will also distribute free rapid antigen tests “into the New Year” to help ease the burden on COVID testing clinics, Premier Dominic Perrottet said.
A global challenge
One of the reasons Omicron appears to be less severe and trending downward in South Africa is because so many people were infected during previous waves, Professor Dantas said.
Between 60 per cent to 70 per cent of South Africans are believed to have some immunity to COVID-19 from prior infection, compared to a quarter of the population who have received two doses of a vaccine.
The South African researchers made a similar point, saying their findings might not translate in wealthier and more unscathed countries because of this.
But the fact that Omicron was first detected in southern Africa is a testament to the great vaccine disparity between continents.
“What we have seen now, 22 months into the pandemic, is that we have had 11 variants, and out of the 11 variants, 10 have emerged from the developing world,” Professor Dantas said.
She called on Australia and other wealthy countries to share excess vaccine doses, and to lobby for patent waivers so that countries with manufacturing capacity can produce their own doses more cheaply.
“Many of these [wealthy] countries have enough for their booster shots. They have enough for their populations over the age of five to get their two doses. They have enough to prioritise booster shots for the elderly, and for health workers and those workers with people-facing professions as a start,” Professor Dantas said.
“Anything in excess of that should be shared.”
Not only is there “a moral and ethical imperative” to save lives and reduce suffering around the world, she explained, but tackling vaccine inequality will reduce future variants from emerging just like Omicron did.